MANILA, Philippines – The Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles are back in the Finals for the first time in four years after slipping past the defending champions Far Eastern University (FEU) Tamaraws, 69-68, in a thrilling, heart-stopping game that went into overtime Wednesday at the Araneta Coliseum.
Big man Isaac Go was the hero for Ateneo, scoring the go-ahead basket with 1:24 to go after corralling the offensive rebound off a missed jumper by Matt Nieto.
It was a tremendous effort for Go, who was subbed out earlier in overtime after catching an inadvertent elbow from FEU's Prince Orizu that left him bleeding from the nose.
Go finished with 12 points and 14 rebounds, seven of which came on the offensive end, while Thirdy Ravena and Mike Nieto each scored 13 points for the Blue Eagles.
It was a remarkably impressive win for the young Blue Eagles, who entered the Final 4 of the UAAP Season 79 tournament as the second seed and armed with a twice-to-beat edge, but were stunned by FEU in their game last Saturday, 62-61.
This time around, however, they showed more composure especially in the final stretches of overtime.
"I think we need to enjoy this," Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin said after the game. "Normally, I'm not a big fan of telling the team to enjoy a semifinal win, I would want to get down to business. But, this is an incredibly young team, and this is an incredible win for us to beat the defending champions."
Ateneo set up a best-of-three Finals showdown against their arch-rivals De La Salle University, the pre-tournament favorites who advanced to the championship series after beating Adamson University in their own Final 4 series last week.
Too late for Dennison
It will be the first time in eight years that Ateneo and La Salle will meet in the Finals, but the so-called "dream match-up" very nearly went up in smoke as the Blue Eagles very nearly saw history repeat itself in the dying seconds of the game.
FEU memorably broke Ateneo's hearts last season, when Mac Belo's putback of a Mike Tolomia miss at the buzzer sent the Tamaraws to the Finals, where they went on to beat University of Santo Tomas in three games.
This time around, the Blue Eagles already held a one-point lead thanks to Go's field goal, but squandered a chance to pad their advantage when Thirdy Ravena committed a turnover right under the basket. The Tamaraws were able to push the ball down the court, but Ron Dennison's lay-up clearly came after the buzzer had sounded.
"I don't think you can separate these two teams with a sledgehammer and a crowbar. We were that close," Baldwin said. "They made the last shot, but it was half a second too late."
The Ateneo team and gallery seemed to release a collective sigh of relief when the final score was finally announced, and former star Kiefer Ravena, watching in Dallas, joined them on Twitter: "Akala ko mauulit!"
The two teams combined for only five points in a gritty overtime period, but the four quarters before it featured high quality basketball on both ends of the floor.
The Tamaraws weathered a slow start and used an 11-0 run to surge to a 20-15 lead at the end of the first quarter as Monbert Arong and Joe Trinidad waxed hot from the perimeter.
The Blue Eagles fought back in the second frame, tying the game at 38 with less than a minute to go off a lay-up by Go, but they gave up an three-point play to Richard Escoto in FEU's final possession, allowing the Tams to enter the break with a 41-38 advantage.
Ateneo appeared to take control in the third quarter, using their quick passing to find creases in FEU's zone defense. Ravena and Nieto also drove to the paint with more confidence, and Ravena's floater with 3:48 left in the third capped a 9-0 run for a 49-45 lead.
The Blue Eagles had a 53-49 advantage heading into the final quarter, but the Tamaraws quickly erased it after an Axel Inigo three-pointer and a breakaway lay-up by Arong made it 56-55.
From then on, it was a back-and-forth contest, as neither team wanted to give an inch to the other. Ravena and Arong, in particular, went toe-to-toe in crunch time, with the FEU veteran tying the game at 64 off a nifty drive to the hoop, only for Ravena to score off a smooth floater for a 66-64 lead with 1:04 to go.
Arong missed a chance to seize the lead with 40 seconds to go, but Dennison was there for the offensive rebound and the putback that tied the game at 66 with 37.8 seconds left.
After a missed lay-up by Arong, Ateneo had a chance to win the game in regulation with 3.7 seconds left. Ravena broke free along the baseline and got a good look at the basket for a lay-up, which rimmed out as time expired.
Ateneo took a blow early in the overtime period when Go had to be subbed out due to his bloody nose. He sat for less than a minute, however, as his replacement, Chibueze Ikeh, fumbled what could have been an easy lay-up.
"It was winning time," said Go. "When the game's on the line, you have to play."
Go secured the most crucial of offensive rebounds and scored the go-ahead shot, and this time around, Dennison was unable to get to the hoop in time, signaling the end of FEU's reign as UAAP champions.
"All my congratulations and full credit to the Tamaraws," said Baldwin. "Tremendous opponent. They were every bit as good as we were."
Arong finished with 15 points and seven rebounds, while Jose – who had a 20-point, 23-rebound performance last Saturday – settled for 12 points and 12 boards this time around. The Tamaraws had a 25-14 rebounding edge at halftime, but Ateneo did better work in the second half and ultimately, FEU only finished with six more rebounds, 53-47.
After allowing FEU to shoot nearly 53% from the field in the first half, Ateneo tightened up defensively, and the Tamaraws finished the game with a 37.66% clip. The Blue Eagles themselves shot a shade under 36%.
Game 1 of the UAAP Season 79 Finals is set for Saturday, December 3, at the Mall of Asia Arena.
ATENEO 69 – Ravena 13, Nieto Mi 13, Go 12, Tolentino 9, Wong 8, Nieto Ma 7, Asistio 3, Verano 2, Black 2, Ikeh 0
FEU 68 – Arong 15, Jose 12, Escoto 11, Dennison 8, Inigo 7, Comboy 5, Orizu 4, Trinidad 4, Nunag 2, Tuffin 0, Ebona 0, Holmqvist 0
Quarter scores: 15-20, 38-41, 53-49, 66-66, 69-68 (OT)
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